Overcoming ignorance

About 3 weeks ago the the Indigenous round of AFL footy took place. The idea behind this is to celebrate the great contribution of indigenous players to the game, and perhaps to help break down a few more racial barriers. The highlight of the round is Dreamtime at the G, where Essendon play Richmond on this date every year under lights at the MCG. It’s a big game. Both teams have big followings and fanatical support. The crowd is always big, and generally the game a decent spectacle. For the indigenous players on either side this is a great opportunity to honour their peoples, and the heritage of the indigenous players before them.

This year was the 20th anniversary of one of the great moments in AFL history, and was duly celebrated. Twenty years ago St Kilda played Collingwood at Victoria Park, and heading towards victory. One of their best players that day was Nicky Winmar. Nicky is aboriginal, and one of the great players. Now Victoria Park was a pretty rough and ready place to play, and if you think Collingwood supporters are feral now (they are), then they’ve got nothing on what they were like in the unenlightened days of the early nineties, and before.

On this day Nicky copped abuse from over the fence, most of it of a racial nature. He’d copped it many times before, but on this day thought enough is enough, and so he acted. He turned to face the Collingwood cheer squad baying for him much like the crowd must have at the Colosseum two millenia ago. Watching them as they hurled abuse, straining to get at him, he calmly lifted his guernsey to reveal the dark skin of his torso. He stood like that, still like a statue, facing them down, the message clear: cop that; I’m black and I’m proud. It was a seminal moment in Australian sport and race relations, and subject of a very famous photo. That was the start of something.

About 3 years later another incident occurred, and once more Collingwood were involved. It was the MCG and Collingwood were playing Essendon, great rivals. I was there, and think it was the third quarter that an incident took place between Michael Long, an iconic indigenous Essendon wingman, and the Collingwood ruckman, lumbering Damian Monkhorst. No-one knew precisely what had happened until after the game, whereupon it emerged that Monkhorst had called Long a black something starting with c.

This was big news, splashed all over the papers and subject to commentary and opinion of every type. Mediation took place, where Longy explained to Monkhorst the deep-seated pain of being called such a thing. To many, to most perhaps at that time, a bit of sledging was normal, and this no worse than anything else – failing to understand the cultural differences and the historical baggage that we as white people are free of.

Did things change from that? Perhaps some. It was another step in the road to awareness. What we were previously ignorant of we were now aware, whether we agreed with it or not. On field it certainly improved, and the AFL was instrumental in driving that change. So to was Michael Long, great player as he was, who after his playing career ended went on to become an intelligent spokesman, and occasional agitator, on indigenous affairs. When Howard was Prime Minister Longy embarked on the ‘Long walk’ to Canberaa to draw attention to the plight of aboriginal society. Even now, today, he is central to the proceedings on Dreamtime day, when he recreates his Long walk each year, this time from Fed Square to the MCG. He’s a great man.

So this brings us up to the events of this year, and it’s hard to understand the things that occurred this time around. There’s no doubt that as a society we are much better educated, more tolerant and understanding, more intelligent about race relations than ever before. Once upon a time there was widespread ignorance; nowadays there seems little excuse to be ignorance. Still, in pockets ignorance prevails.

The opening of the round was a big match between the Sydney Swans and Collingwood (yep, them again). It seemed poetic that one of the greatest indigenous players of all time, Adam Goodes, was well on the way to being best on ground when another incident occurred. It was late in the game and the ball bounced out of play in a forward pocket. Goodes was there, jogging by, when abruptly he turned in reaction to some comment coming from the other side of the fence. He stood, angry, and pointed to the offender to be dealt with by security staff. Then he took himself off the field and deep into the bowels of the MCG, offended to the core it seemed.

Later we learn that he has been called a ‘black monkey’. We learn that the person calling him this is a 13-year-old girl from country Victoria. Goodes is fabulous – another great leader, a top bloke. He is at pains to say that he doesn’t want the girl to suffer, but he wants to highlight the ignorance that leads to such comments. He explains lucidly how demeaning such casual abuse is. There’s an outcry of course, most sympathetic to Goodes, but some wondering still what the fuss is all about. The girl herself is remorseful, but explains that she didn’t understand what she was saying. Goodes accepts this, but points to a lack of education in general – people should know.

That’s not the end. A few days later Eddie McGuire, president of the Collingwood Football Club, and one of the first to go to Goodes to apologise and placate, finds himself making the most incredible gaffe. With the stage production of King Kong coming to Melbourne he suggests that Adam Goodes – 6’5″ and dark-skinned – should be used to promote the show. It beggars belief, and naturally another storm of controversy erupted.

It’s my view that Eddie didn’t mean what it sounded like what he meant. I don’t think he’s racist, and in fact has dome a lot of good in combating it. Still, he’s guilty of making a racial comment. You can forgive it perhaps, but not excuse it.

What does all this mean? The timing was impeccable, and the explosion of events and the commentary surrounding it make it seem that Australia is still a racist society. There were many who claimed that in the aftermath of these events, commenting on what they called ‘casual racism’ – the stuff people say as if from habit, and without thought. Are we racist?

I must say initially I questioned my belief that Australia is no more racist than most countries, and less so than many. I don’t know if I know anyone who could be termed racist – and that’s certainly different from 20 years ago. I know there are racists out there, people who are deliberately so, but I doubt we’ll ever eradicate them. They’re just a small portion though. Of the rest, there’s the educated middle class who would be aghast at being anything remotely racist. They’re who I rub shoulders with most, so perhaps I have a sheltered view of reality. Then there are those who don’t think themselves that, but might be given to mouthing the odd racist epithet from habit; those who are easily led and incited (thanks John Howard/Tony Abbott); and those fearful and ignorant who when scratched will turn ugly and racist. How much of each? I don’t know.

Let me tell you a story. I don’t I’m racist, or at least if I am it’s at the bottom end of the scale. You might point to the immorality of racism and suggest that’s why, and I’ll nod my head and say sure. That seconds though. I just think racism, or any sort of bigotry, is just dumb. Dumb as in unintelligent. Sure there are differences in how we talk maybe, how we look, what we eat, and so on. Most of the differences are cultural really, rather than racial. If you don’t understand that beneath all of that most people are pretty much the same then you’re ignorant, dumb, or been living in a cave. My anti-racism is largely scientific.

It wasn’t always the case, but I’ve been good enough to open myself up and learn. Back in the day I was one of the Aussie sporting types who thought it was fun to sledge an opponent. It was part of the game. I had no compunction in calling someone fat or ugly or stupid or whatever out on the sporting field. Private schoolboy as I was, I never had occasion to say anything worse than that. I used to cop the odd bit of advice in return, but it never bothered me, and once you left the field that was all behind you. That was the great Australian way – fierce competitors on the field, and happy to share a beer with you off of it. Not everyone gets that – I guess you have to grow up in the culture – but I’m still a cautious adherent to that ethos.

Once you take that view then it opens you up to other views that seem reasonable at the time. I remember thinking back in the day, what’s wrong with calling someone a black so-and-so? He is black after all. To me it seemed no different to calling someone a fat so-and-so. But of course, it isn’t, and that’s what I, and society, have had to learn.

When you’ve been an oppressed people, when the language of that oppression is so violent and demeaning, then it scars, not just the person, but the culture. For me to call someone a black so-and-so then is quite different. It harks back to the day when I was master and could do anything I wanted. It is the language of power and abuse, and resonates so to this day. Is it any wonder then that the free and liberated should react so strongly to language that seeks to make them subservient again? This is not to be tolerated, not to be accepted or overlooked, not anymore: this has to stop. And so you have proudly aboriginal figures such as Winmar, Long and Goodes make a stand.

It’s a road we travel along, learning perhaps, but making mistakes too, and learning from them. Whilst recent events have been a shock, they are instructive also. White society needs to learn and understand, and perhaps the easiest way for that to happen is for our ignorance to exposed when it occurs, for us to be properly taken to task when we cross the line. This is what happened to me, and I learned from it.

Years ago I had a good friend born in India, but very Aussie. We were friends for years and every so often I would fondly call him ‘black fella’. Then one day he turned to me and said if I ever called him that again then he would knock my block off. Being the combative type I might have bristled at the threat, but instead I recognised the insult to him. It dawned on me at that moment that I had been loose and casual with my language for years. What I had said with affection was in fact deeply offensive. I never said it again, to him or anyone else, and stored away the knowledge. I learned, as I still am.

This is 2013. I believe we can be a better society, but that we will be. I’m an optimist, always. The situation is not helped by the continuing political vilification of those who are not like us, but I think most of us know that – smart enough to know that to be racist is an act of stupidity.

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